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Film In Conversation

Jonas Mekas

Photo by Lee Weaver.
Photo by Lee Weaver.

Jonas Mekas: I think I need to make an introduction to this conversation. We are here on the roof of a building at 32 Second Avenue. Formerly a courthouse, now it is Anthology Film Archives’ headquarters. The occasion for this conversation is our need to construct adjacent to this building—in a space that is twelve feet by one hundred feet—a library for our paper materials, of which we have a lot. The library would house fifty years of history, that part which is on paper, of independent/avant-garde film in the United States. Actually, one could say, internationally. We have engaged Raimund Abraham to design and supervise the construction of the library which we decided to call the "Heaven and Earth Library" in honor of Harry Smith because the library will house a large collection of Harry Smith’s materials, the music records, the books, the paintings.

Raimund Abraham: We met in ’65, when you were still up on 42nd or 41st Street?

Mekas: 41st Street.

Abraham: Then I witnessed that Anthology moved to different places. I always felt that moving from one place to another enforced the spirit of the Underground, which you represented. With the acquisition of the Courthouse that odyssey came to an end and it became more or less permanent. I think that the library would be morally enforcing that permanency.

Mekas: I agree with your perception of the development of our journey through various spaces.

Abraham: Despite the fact that you became permanent, you remained outside of the support system of cultural institutions. For example, The Museum of Moving Images, in Queens, gets heavy financial support from everywhere and you were still struggling despite the decision that you were becoming permanent. It didn’t really affect your continued struggle for survival.

Mekas: Anthology Film Archives deals with a very uncommercial aspect of cinema. The emphasis in what we show and what we preserve and what we support is cinema of avant-garde persuasion. There is no money in it. And the way I see it, the avant-garde film will remain outside of the commercial interests. No one is buying it, the screenings are limited and the support is practically non-existent. But I don’t see this as something bad: I think it helps us to remain poets.

Abraham: My challenge as an architect is not only to respect your independence and your status of being outside of the whole cinema system. I would not be interested in just making an addition to that building. What intrigued me the most was the gap between the courthouse and the neighboring building. The gap is eleven feet wide, which would be considered by any professional architect unusable. In that context the metaphor of heaven and earth almost become literally implemented because you have the gap. You start out with a very compressed dark space, earthbound, and then you reach up to the sky to heaven. And then you start to embrace the buildings, so I don’t see it as building an addition, but I see it as an independent element that embraces the old building. That is what really interests me in this respect. But I actually wanted to start out by asking you a question. When did you start wearing hats?

Mekas: Very, very early. When I was a child my uncle was studying in Switzerland and Germany, and every summer when he used to come back, and I was five or six, he used to always bring back hats as presents. They were white straw hats usually. The hat was always there in my childhood. Then somewhere in 1960, I began wearing hats myself—it’s part of me now and I like it.

Abraham: The first hat that I wore was the hat of my grandfather, which I remember was a black hat. I remember it more like an American hat. It was much bigger than hats are now. So hats became for me not only just wearing something, but became like an object of my own history. I have fifteen hats at home that I don’t wear anymore but I know at what time I was wearing them. The most traumatic experience that I had was a hat of my father’s. When I was in the subway going to Brooklyn, I was reading and I put it down on the bench and then I left and I realized that I left my hat. I turned around and saw my hat on the bench and then the door closed and the subway took the hat away.

Mekas: [laughter]

Abraham: When you wear a hat it changes your perception. Brecht wrote this beautiful poem, "Above us are the clouds, the clouds belong to our world, above the clouds is nothing." The hat is like the lowering of the heavens because the rim becomes your horizon of vision. It has a certain weight.

Mekas: Sometimes I feel strange when I am walking in huge crowd and I am the only one who has a hat!

Abraham: If you go into a church you have to take your hat down.

Mekas: Of course.

Abraham: In the Judaic tradition the worshipers have to wear their hats to protect the sacredness of the temple. I have a very funny story: Carlo Scarpa, an Italian architect and one of my heroes is an independent architect who built very little. He was always in debt and he never had any money. And when the tax collectors for the fifth time removed the furniture from his house, he decided to cast it in concrete. Coming back to the hat story. During my first visit, I had to find the key-keeper, a local farmer in the nearby village. Entering the old cemetery, we both took our hats off. After he unlocked the gate to the Scarpa cemetery, he immediately puts his hat back on. This monumental, but simple gesture was a manifestation of a precise but subconscious critique of design versus architecture, beauty versus the tradition of burial.

So now we are stuck with the hat… Did you know that Richard Serra always obsessively and in my opinion trivially claims that architecture is not an art because it has to be used? So now I think you and I are very similar in our rejection of the term "art" because you always say that you are a filmer and not a filmmaker and I always say that I am a worker in the discipline of architecture and it’s no concern of mine if I am an artist or not. And what about Hegel’s definition of Architecture as the mother of the arts? What about "Baukunst"?

Mekas: I make films. My objection is to the overuse of the term "artist."

Abraham: We reject that because the term "art" has been abused in our time. On the other hand it does exist in our time like beauty, truth.

Mekas: I would ask Richard Serra to talk about what he means by function/use.

Abraham: He permits himself to be used when he puts sculptures in a gallery where he controls the space or he puts it in front of a stupid office building. He blames the stupidity of the office building made by a bad professional architect so it generates his hatred of professional architects.

Mekas: I think that he defended his sculpture, downtown, called "Tilted Arc," that it performed a function there, that it was necessary in that space. So what does the term usage or function mean? Music also performs a certain function also in developing our sensibilities and keeping us together. Like various work songs, folk songs.

Abraham: It is very true that architecture in that sense is more difficult than any other discipline in the arts, to reach that level of abstraction because you have to think about a toilet and the most trivial functional supports. But you can also make a toilet that has sacredness; the toilet in my house in Mexico is a toilet that is a chapel.

Mekas: A Japanese writer, Tanizaki wrote a little book, a beautiful essay, In Praise of Shadows, is exactly about Japanese toilets.

Abraham: Ah, yes I know this book, but I lost it!

Mekas: I bought a few of them and I am giving them to friends.

Abraham: You gave me the one I lost.

Mekas: Yes. but all this talk today about music as art, poetry, literature as art, fiction... I think this art business should temporarily be thrown out the window.

Abraham: I know!

Mekas: Then Richard Serra wouldn’t have to attack architecture anymore. He will accept it as he accepts poetry, music, or sculpture.

Abraham: I said so many times that I was not only inspired by, but was lucky to have met Kubelka in Vienna in the ‘60s, who at the time was the most radical filmmaker for rejecting almost anything that would be considered a deviation from the principles of cinema. I discovered that, got the strength to become independent, realizing that what I needed was a piece of paper and pencil to make architecture, as you needed a camera to make film without being a director or cutter. I am always amazed by looking at the end of a Hollywood film how many people are involved in making a film.

Mekas: It’s the same as in music; you could be just one performer, a violinist or part of an orchestra. There are different varieties of music. I don’t deny a place for Spielberg in cinema. The same in architecture: you can build a house for one person, one family, or a cathedral.

Abraham: But on the other hand if we reject this idea of art, the fact is that all the different languages and all the different disciplines of the arts are based on syntactic foundation. There is a principle that we all respect. You edit your film; you are fully aware of how you structure your film, as I am fully aware of how to translate an ideal geometrical condition into a building. The only interesting thing to me is when you take Peter Kubelka, let’s say of the four films he made, in particular the first three, where he is preaching the principle, the essence of his films. It is so interesting to me that the same principle being used by Hollywood is what independent film discovered years ago. You pack in two thousand images into half a minute, which was rejected thirty years ago because people said they couldn’t see it.

Mekas: But that was true, they couldn’t see it. People have been completely trained to see it only in the last thirty years. Technology, computers, movements, speeds all around us. They are able to see it now; they were not able to see it thirty years ago.

Abraham: But because they didn’t respect when it was shown as independent cinema. Now they believe Hollywood as they believe newspapers. In a way the Eskimos (who was this guy in the ’60s that wrote The Hidden Dimension?), could not be deceived. They could see every single frame because their eyes are trained in a complete white world so any black dot becomes a sensational perception. What the eye can see is what you want to see.

Mekas: They’ve been trained. Their visual perception has changed and has been trained over the past thirty or so years. The children grow up with video games. It’s completely changed their perception. It’s very natural. As in literature what some of the poets did in the beginning of the century in poetry has come now into prose, into fiction. It is part of literature.

Abraham: It is very important that the principles of any discipline of the arts will have to disappear when your work is complete, that means that you are fully aware of those principles while you work but they cannot dominate.

Mekas: I am not so sure that I am aware of principles. When I was working on my last film everything came out of the material I was working with. I didn’t care about any principles. It developed its own principles. Principles are there to just leave them alone and go somewhere else. Nothing is there forever.

Abraham: I am always suspicious of work when the underlying principle becomes obvious. The famous Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard could have written only one book instead of ten. When the same principle is recognizable dominating the work it becomes style, but, according to George Kubler, "style" is like a rainbow. We can see it only briefly while we pause between the sun and the rain and it vanishes when we go to the place where we thought we saw it."

Mekas: You can see the same principles in all of his works, same as you can see certain principles in mine, but that doesn’t mean that those same principles can be applied to the work of anybody else.

Abraham: But in your work, your principles are much harder to identify. I think that is where work becomes mysterious. In a way, architecture is much more obvious because you have geometry and you have to deal with geometry, without dealing with geometry you cannot make architecture. But if geometry would start to dominate your work, it would lose all its power. It almost like the same as Gertrude Stein said, "A rose is a rose is a rose." And you can say, "a square is a square is a square." Only if you confront that square with material—steel, concrete, brick— then the challenge of that ideal determines its transformation into architecture.

Mekas: What is the basic principle of using this space (the library) and knowing that this will be a library?

Abraham: Any compressed space is at an advantage for me because I always want to reduce.

Mekas: You had a challenging space on 52nd Street also.

Abraham: It was 25 feet. This is half the size. For me any idea that I have about architecture does not originate from an idea of buildings. I hate buildings. It originates from my reading of the place. Heidegger had a very beautiful term as an etymologist rather than as a philosopher, he discovered that "Ort" in German—there is no real actual equivalent word in English—it’s neither site nor place, "Ort" originates from the tip of a lance. The tip of a lance, you can put it in the sun and it reflects the light or you can turn it around and mark a place, conquer a place by putting the lance in the ground. It is a new understanding of "Ort", of that place, that generates my ideas.

A library is also for me a book, the mystery of a book is not what’s written in a book it’s that the pages touch each other. Mallarme had this idea about an infinite book where he could read in any direction. All the letters in the book touch each other, it’s invisible, it’s inside, it’s folded inside. This for me is an ideal space, where there is compression like in a book. Only half of the space will actually be accessible, the rest of it will be a void where you can look all the way up and all the way down to the sky and the whole wall will have books, artworks. And then when it reaches the light, the heaven it embraces the whole building and then you have there more generous spaces for exhibitions or readings. I wanted it to be reaching out like a hand over the old building and from the street you can start to see it having useful projections, for lettering whatever you want to use. It is two stories up. There is not much more to say about the library. We should have actually brought the model. It’s the way that you and I live; it is a spontaneous environment that we live in and Anthology is more or less like that. It has a personal feeling that there is stuff all over the place. Now when you make architecture, architecture is more fragile than any other discipline, you can violate it really easily. For the user there has to be a certain respect for the architecture. There is a conflict between spontaneous use and architecture. Maybe not everything needs to be architecture.

Mekas: You are designing a structure that will have a very specific purpose.

Abraham: Exactly. It is going to be very specific, the more minimal a space becomes the more fragile it becomes. This is the last building I want to build.

Mekas: Like Chaplin would say after every film, "That is the last film that I am going to do."

Abraham: I always had the courage to say no to a project that didn’t interest me. All my life, I never went after a job so to speak in professional terms. Right now after giving ten years to a building, I feel exhausted and don’t want to get involved with a job of that magnitude. There is my own house in Mexico in construction and the library here. That is like building a house for friends, it’s personal. You are not a client. You are my friend, a hero of mine in terms of what you make. That is intimate. I don’t consider that part of my statement. If someone said, build a skyscraper uptown, I would say no, maybe [laughs]. The issue in our time is not what can be built but what should be built.

Mekas: I am running Anthology Film Archives and in order not to go crazy I make my films on the side because Anthology is a major museum. What we have at Anthology—imagine if you would have all the Picassos, all the Braques, all Giacomettis, all Brancusis in one place. At Anthology we have all that! Nobody realizes this.

Abraham: What Kulbelka always told me is that he was always so jealous about sculpture or architecture because it is physical, you can touch it, and somehow you can talk about permanency and eternity. But film is so fragile you have a little celluloid that you have to protect against aging and so forth. So it is a very fragile art.

Mekas: Everything falls to dust.

Abraham: We have to both get involved in the professional world, you in the Anthology Film Archives and I when I build a building. But when I build, I depend on every bricklayer, ironworker, carpenter. When I draw, and only then, I can claim to be an independent architect. And this dependence on others to implement your work is maybe the most crucial difference between built architecture and any discipline of the arts. Palladio made woodcuts. He published four book where all these ideas where manifested. He did not have to make working drawings; he took some of the ideal prototypes and then built them. He just made drawings that showed the ideal geometric proportions. The builder knew how to build it and on the side he would make adjustments. When you do that here you have a lawsuit. The circumstances have become so severe against architecture that that’s why there are so few architects because there are so few who can resist those forces. That’s politics.

Mekas: The idea to build a library became a necessity when we could not practically move through our basement filled with boxes of collections of paper materials that keep coming from film historians, from estates, etc. The scholars come and want to see the papers, but they are not accessible. There are boxes and boxes of them in the basement, not available to visitors. We have to make those materials available before time begins to destroy them. They must be properly stored under proper conditions. We have the largest collection of paper materials on avant-garde film and it’s not available. It’s rotting there in the basement.

Abraham: You have the richest country in the world and they let it rot.

Mekas: So there is this urgent necessity. I don’t know how much it will cost and I have no idea how the money will come. But when there is a necessity someone will come, and will help, and the library will be built. Actually the idea of the library was always there, ever since we acquired the building in 1977.

Abraham: You had to overcome incredible obstacles just to acquire the building. Everybody said impossible, forget it.

Mekas: If I would begin to worry about what I do I would never get anything done.

Abraham: There’s hope, and hope and despair are inseparable.

Mekas: I don’t have hope. In the past, my projects never failed because I never undertook any unnecessary projects. Never did anything that someone else could do. This is something that I know only I can do, or more correctly in this case: something that we can do together. Nobody else would ever do it. I know we have to do it so it will be done.


Raimund Abraham


The Brooklyn Rail


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